The Language Archive
5 – 9 October
PH7 Production Management, directed by Ghafir Akbar
Reviewed by LYN ONG
We all speak at least one language, a tongue in which we are able to communicate our thoughts, needs and so forth. But language is much more than a communication tool. A language can define groups of people and their quirks simply by the words they use.
The Language Archive is a play about language, love and the idiosyncrasies of both. Written by American playwright Julia Cho, the play was directed by Ghafir Akbar and produced by PH7 Production Management. The cast included many veteran theatre and TV actors such as Gavin Yap, Farah Rani, Anitha Hamid, Sukania Venugopal and Dato’ Zahim Albakri.
At the forefront of the story is George (Gavin Yap), a linguist who is able to speak many languages, yet ironically unable to communicate with his wife Mary (Anitha Hamid) in a meaningful way. He works at the Language Archive where he and his faithful assistant Emma (Farah Rani) research and document the dying languages of the world.
George’s latest endeavour is to record the words of Alta and Resten, a married couple and native speakers of a rare (fictional) language, Ellowan. However, the couple have fallen into a serious squabble. At the same time, George’s marriage is on the rocks while his assistant Emma is secretly in love with him.
The play starts by breaking the fourth wall immediately. George addresses the audience and tells us his observations about Mary. “Lately, she’s become very sad. She cries at everything!” he says. Mary interjects and they alternate between conversation and moments when George speaks to the audience. It was an interesting voyeuristic experience, much like having a conversation with a friend and at the same time, being privy to their intimate thoughts and memories.
The Language Archive is a compelling display of Julia Cho’s brilliance with words. We are reintroduced to language in a manner that engages us to think beyond the words we say. Why do we say them? What do we use certain words for? How does a language die? Why are there some words to describe certain things, yet none in another language?
And so, what IS language?
At one point, Alta and Resten explain why they are arguing in English rather than their native tongue: “Because English is the language of anger!” Ellowan is too sacred, it is the language of their hearts. “Say mean, ugly hateful things, this is what English is perfect for!” explains Resten.
Do languages create new realities and identities or is it the other way round?
In a tender moment, Alta tells George, “You think lost of our language, is lost of our world. But it is world that ends first, my friend. World dies then language follows,” she says. “And what we accept that which maybe you do not is, no amount of talk, talk, talk will ever bring what is gone, back.”
So it seems to be with George’s marriage. Even when he looks like he’s about to win Mary back with a nostalgic anecdote, the hopeful reunion is cut short. The words are not enough. In the second half of the play, we see that Mary is much happier in her new life.
The dialogue and performance by the cast lent a strangely lyrical quality to the play. It often felt as if one was listening to poetry being recited through conversations. But the swift back and forth between poignancy and humour kept the performance light-hearted.
Zahim Albakri and Sukania Venugopal provided most of the comic relief as Resten and Alta. Their antics brought hearty laughter from the crowd. From a petty squabbling couple to one that eventually resolved their differences and remained devotedly in love, their relationship had its identifiable ups and downs just like any other. It was refreshing to see how multi-dimensional the all the characters were, each with their own fears, hopes and needs as they struggled to find the best way to express themselves.
The set design used stacked blank cardboard boxes as a neutral backdrop combined with digital projections to create a sense of different locations. This simple design was clever and effective, harking back to childhood, when kids use cardboard boxes to build anything their imaginations can hold.
Ultimately, language becomes a sort of placeholder for the underlying human emotions that form the basis of our connections with one another. The entertaining performance held up due to Julia Cho’s deft hand with the script, as well as the finesse of the cast, who embodied their characters wonderfully.
By the end of the play, we realise that language is more complex and richly layered than simply spoken words. As George said in his soliloquy after Mary announced her intentions to leave him, “Even with all my languages, there still aren’t the right words.” In this case, however, The Language Archive contained all the right words and more to win our hearts over.